Matthew 16:15-18 is a very misunderstood passage in the Bible.
The Roman Catholic Church believes that the Rock on which Jesus builds his church was the Apostle Peter, who allegedly was the first Pope or Bishop of Rome. Subsequently, all the Popes have been the spiritual descendants of Peter.
The true church is, therefore, all those who acknowledge the headship of the Pope and belong to the Roman Catholic structure.
In Roman Catholic doctrine, God’s grace flows from God through the Pope, through the Cardinals, through the Bishops, through the Priests, and then to the congregation via the sacraments.
To be excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church is to endanger your immortal soul.
This year, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that started in Germany in 1517.
There are a couple of things we take for granted in our church services:
It is in an understandable language
We have Bibles
The Bible is read and explained
We pray together, sing together and take part in some way
The gospel is explained
If we were attending a church 500 years ago in Europe, none of these would have happened. Europe in Medieval times was a spiritually dark, superstitious place. The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) ruled supreme. All roads led to Rome where the Pope ruled over all things religious. The Pope was (and still is) believed to be the spiritual successor to the Apostle Peter and the Vicar of Christ i.e. Christ’s representative on earth. Without Father Pope there could be no church, without Mother Church there could be no salvation.
For Christians, our faithfulness in this world influences our rewards in the world to come. This is not the final judgement. At the final judgement, if we are Christians we are saved and guaranteed a place in heaven. Our sin have been forgiven in Christ and we are righteous in God’s sight. On the other hand, if we have ignored or rejected Christ, we will be judged by God and spend an eternity apart from God in what Jesus described as the cosmic rubbish dump (“gehenna”).
The Bible teaches that as Christians we face an assessment where our work for the Lord will be tested and we will be rewarded (or not) according to our faithfulness. This is not the final judgment as our entrance into the New Creation is secure, but an accounting to God of what he has entrusted to us.
One of the contexts in which we do ministry in Africa is the background and influence of African Traditional Religion (ATR). In ATR the sangoma (witchdoctor) has special access to God, the spirit world and the ancestors.
The sangoma is able to make contact with the spirit world in order to guarantee protection from evil spirits, to ensure good luck in a job interview or even to lift a curse someone else might have placed on you. The sangoma is able to provide blessing, healing, deliverance and protection (among other things).
In a little village in Germany in 1483 Martin Luther was born. Martin Luther was, under God, the instigator and one of the biggest drivers of the protestant reformation in Europe – with its subsequent break from the Roman Catholic Church. By the 15th Century Roman Catholicism was dominant religion in Europe. After school Luther went on to university and studied law. He decided to become a monk in one of the strictest orders in the Catholic Church. Priests taught Luther and the general public that one could save yourself by prayer, fasting and penance. The result being that Luther’s teachers were wearied by constant prayers, fasting and penance! Luther later wrote: “If ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I”. Yet he faced a long spiritual crisis, anxiously anguishing over how sinful man can come to a holy God. Luther finally experienced great joy and his eyes were opened to understand a radical, biblical truth. He wrote later, “I felt myself to be reborn, and to have gone through open doors to paradise.” What happened? What truth did he grasp?
A South African cardinal on Monday apologized for offending victims of child abuse when he described paedophilia as an illness and not a crime. While we can agree that those who have themselves been abused (as some priests were) are perhaps more susceptible to becoming abusers themselves, we cannot excuse such deliberate, evil behaviour as simply “illness” or “syndrome”.
Priests know, sometimes even better than most, what is right and wrong. If we go down the illness-path, one day we will be reading of “drunk-driving” syndrome, “hijacking-with-assault” syndrome and “toddler-beating” syndrome.
One of the reasons there is so much sexual exploitation and scandal in the Roman Catholic Church is that priests are burning with lust.
Should we be praying for our loved ones that have died? Do our prayers somehow help or comfort them?
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that we should pray for the “faithfully departed” in purgatory. According to Catholicism, our prayers help them during their time in purgatory, so that they can enter more quickly into the fullness of heaven. Why would they be in purgatory? The Catholic Church makes a distinction between two types of sin:
Two types of sin
Mortal sin is a “grave violation of God’s law” that “turns the person away from God”, and if it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell. E.g. Murder, adultery, theft
In contrast, venial sins (“forgivable” sin) are sins that are not so serious – they are still wrong, but not so serious – and these sins that won’t exclude us from heaven, E.g. loosing your temper or telling white lie. Pardon and purifications can be made for venial sins in this life through the sacraments e.g. baptism, mass and penance. However, if this purification is not achieved in life, venial sins can still be purified after death, which is called “purgatory”.
However, you might die before you could do your penance, or say confession, or attend mass, and therefore you wouldn’t go immediately to heaven, but to purgatory – where you will me made holy enough for heaven.
The Catholic Church gets this teaching from three places:
(1) The book of 2 Maccabees in the Apocrypha. Here Judas Maccabeus prays for dead soldiers.
(The Apocrypha is a collection of books written in time between the Old and New Testament. These works were not considered scripture by Jesus or the biblical authors and contain teaching inconsistent with the Bible.)
(2) Church tradition, the official teachings of the church over the years.
(3) The Church’s (mis)understanding of certain New Testament passages (E.g. 1 Corinthians 3)
Jesus’ death for sin
The Bible tells us that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sin, all our sin. Through faith in Jesus we are justified and receive the righteousness of Christ. Its 100% forgiveness and 100% right standing before God. Jesus paid the just price for all sin in the Christian’s life: past, present and future. Christians, as the writer of the book of Hebrews says, can “confidently enter the Most Holy place (God’s presence) by the blood (death) of Jesus.” (Hebrews 10:19) As Christians we are assured of our immediate entrance into God’s presence when we die.
This is why Jesus could say to the repentant criminal crucified next to him: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
This is why the apostle Paul could say: “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8)
In the story Jesus told about a rich man and Lazarus, both men carried on living after the death, either immediately in the presence of God or in hell. There was no in-between state or place, no purgatory, and no crossing over. (Luke 16)
The statement of faith of the Church of England in South Africa, the 39 Articles of Religion, puts it this way:
Article 31: The one offering of Christ finished in the cross
Christ’s offering of himself on the cross, once for all, is the perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all sins…, both original and actual, and there is no other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. Therefore the sacrifices of masses, in which it is commonly said that the Priest offers Christ for the living and the dead, to obtain the remission of their punishment or guilt, are blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits.
Article 22: Purgatory
The Romish teaching about purgatory, pardons, the worship and adoration of images and relics, and also the practice of praying to saints, is a futile deception, which, far from being grounded in Scripture, is repugnant to the Word of God.
This is not to say that we don’t sin as Christians. But, when we do sin, the Bible commends us to confess our sins, turn away from those sins, and thank God for the forgiveness we have in Christ.
Should we pray for the dead? No.
We should remember them and treasure our memories. We can look forward to seeing those that have died again on the renewed earth if they and we are Christians. But our prayers can in no way help, guide or comfort them.